Tim Tebow is an outlier.
Tebow’s college football career is a stellar resume of winning, but Tebow also stands among an elite fraternity who have won the Heisman Trophy.
Nonetheless, Tebow has once again failed in the National Football League, being cut by the New England Patriots.
Despite his pattern of failure in the NFL, Tebow tweeted: “I will remain in relentless pursuit of continuing my lifelong dream of being an NFL quarterback.”
As well, Tebow stands as another type of outlier:
Among the past 16 quarterbacks to win the Heisman, there has been a grand total of one NFL playoff win as a starter. And that winner was Tim Tebow. The magic happened in Jan., of 2012, as the Broncos beat the Steelers in OT, 29-23, on Tebow’s 80-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas.
This says more about the Heisman winners than it does Tebow, I’m afraid. One has to go back to Vinny Testaverde, who won the Heisman in 1986 at the University of Miami, to find someone who had a modicum of NFL success. And before him there were plenty, but since 1987 there haven’t been many Heisman quarterbacks who have done much, NFL playoff-wise.
And among these contradictory moments of high success and disappointing failure, Tebow has maintained a tremendous base of hardcore fans. Tebow is the Great American, it seems—young, white, athletic, hard working, eternally optimistic, brashly Christian.
All of this leads one to wonder why—despite his enormous talents, his relentless work ethic, his repeated opportunities, and his powerful faith—Tebow cannot achieve his single greatest “lifelong dream.”
The answer lies in the cultural attitudes in the U.S. concerning success and failure, as well as an enduring faith that success and failure lie primarily in the character of individuals.
Successful people in the U.S. have earned their success, and thus deserve it, the myth goes. Successful people are hard workers.
People who fail or struggle, especially economically, are lazy, the myth includes. Any claims that failure is the result of inequity or the consequences of an unfair playing field are simply excuses.
These cultural myths about the rugged individual and the power of hard work now drive education reform. The rise of “no excuses” discourse coming from political leaders and “no excuses” polices found in charter schools but replicated in public schools are the logical extensions of instilling in all children a work ethic that will help them rise above the consequences of their births.
Beneath these compelling narratives, however, remain the much uglier beliefs about race and class: Poor people (disproportionately minorities) are lazy and deserve their poverty.
The Tebow story also highlights another aspect of these mythologies—a misunderstanding of normalizing exceptionality.
If anyone suggests the U.S. remains racist** and classist, outliers such as Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama are held up as proof otherwise.
For Tebow, all his effort and faith cannot and will not replace a stark fact: If you are not good enough to be an NFL quarterback, you will not be an NFL quarterback. Period.
And no person can simply will him/herself to overcome forces larger than him/her.
For people like Tebow, then, it is inexcusable that the unattainable has become the marker by which they judge themselves and others judge them.
I am no Tebow fan, but I see his life as a powerful lesson that we fail to acknowledge time and again in the U.S. Tebow’s life is a powerful lesson about the incredible damage we are doing to the children of our country by committing our faith, public institutions, and tremendous wealth to what essentially is a web of lies, the foundational elements of the “no excuses” education reform movement.
Are poor people lazy and somehow the agents of their own poverty? Amina Khan reports:
There’s a widespread tendency to assume that poor people don’t have money because they are lazy, unmotivated or just not that sharp, said study coauthor Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist at Harvard University.
“That’s a broad narrative that’s pretty common,” Mullainathan said. “Our intuition was quite different: It’s not that poor people are any different than rich people, but that being poor in itself has an effect.”…
Discussing the same research, Emily Badger explains:
In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.
The finding further undercuts the theory that poor people, through inherent weakness, are responsible for their own poverty – or that they ought to be able to lift themselves out of it with enough effort. This research suggests that the reality of poverty actually makes it harder to execute fundamental life skills. Being poor means, as the authors write, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”
This explains, for example, why poor people who aren’t good with money might also struggle to be good parents. The two problems aren’t unconnected….
For all the value in this finding, it’s easy to imagine how proponents of hackneyed arguments about poverty might twist the fundamental relationship between cause-and-effect here. If living in poverty is the equivalent of losing 13 points in IQ, doesn’t that mean people with lower IQs wind up in poverty?
“We’ve definitely worried about that,” Shafir says. Science, though, is coalescing around the opposite explanation. “All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”
Are claims of racism simply excuses, playing the race card? Yi Wu details the facts of U.S. incarceration*:
[O]ne out of every 12 working-age black men are imprisoned, far exceeding the figure for whites (one out of 87). Inmates cannot work to provide for their families, and their incarceration leads to sizable losses of our national economic output. Instead of producing goods or getting trained, they are locked in cages. In every 12 black families there is one missing breadwinner. It is estimated that imprisoning one person costs $23,286 in lost productivity. Furthermore, more than one out of three young black men without a high school diploma are incarcerated. If you are a black male high-school dropout, you only have 63% chance of being free, let alone finding gainful employment, and for you, King’s dream may remain deferred.
Matt Bruenig adds the racial inequity found between middle-class whites and blacks:
[B]lack families have much less wealth than white families, even when you compare blacks and whites within the same income groups….
[B]lack and hispanic wealth represented as a percentage of the white wealth in a given income group. So for instance, the bar farthest to the left says that black families in the poorest 20 percent of families have a median wealth that is just 19.7 percent of the median wealth of white families in the poorest 20 percent. Black families in the 60th to 79th percentile of income come the closest to their white peers, but even they have median wealth holdings that are just 53.9 percent of whites in that group. If you average all the income groups together, you find that, when you control for family income, black median wealth is less than 1/3rd of white median wealth.
Why is this the case? There are many factors, but one in particular looms large. It turns out that three centuries of enslavement followed by another bonus century of explicit racial apartheid was hell on black wealth accumulation. Wealth accumulation opportunities haven’t exactly been evenly distributed in the last half century either. Because wealth is the sort of thing you transmit across generations and down family lines (e.g. through inheritance, gifts, and so on), racial wealth disparities remain quite massive.
This wealth disparity means that a middle class black family is not in basically the same position as a middle class white family.
And Bruenig has also exposed the relationship between hard work and privilege:
[Y]ou are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!
Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.
Race and class in the U.S. remain powerful forces, more powerful than individual effort or character.
Lazy and morally suspect people born into privilege often remain affluent, and even grow their wealth.
Decent and hardworking people born into poverty tend to remain in poverty.
The smiles and platitudes Tebow clings to feed his popularity with others who wish to believe in myths that are simply distortions at best, and corrosive lies as worst.
Does hard work matter? Of course, hard work as its own reward may be one of the most powerful and enduring lessons we can teach children.
Hard work, however, is no guarantee, and hard work isn’t nearly enough if we persist in pretending that the U.S. is post-racial, that the U.S. is a meritocracy.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past that Tebow would have had another advantage in the NFL, where being white was a marker for being quarterback.
Oddly, the NFL is closer to being a post-racial meritocracy than our wider society (although the NFL itself suffers lingering racial problems as well).
Thus, Tebow’s floundering NFL career, then, sends a hard message that we should stop manipulating his idealism and start acknowledging that hard work isn’t enough.
* For a compelling and disturbing chronicle of the racial inequity represented by the current era of mass incarceration, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
** Tell Me How Long James Baldwin’s Been Gone, by Alex Carnevale
Faulkner refused an invitation to the White House that would have put him and Baldwin in the same room. He was of an ilk of white man whose objection to other people’s objections was that they made it all about race. This is not to say something about Faulkner, but ourselves. Even now, when someone argues that an issue has eclipsed race, we can hear Faulkner’s words to American blacks in theirs, and know it for a lie.